London's great market forces
Britain was once a culinary laughing stock, but the last decade has seen a remarkable transformation. The foodie revolution has introduced us to celebrity chefs, exotic dishes and gastro-pubs. However, some things never change: The wholesale markets.
New Covent Garden Market
Even now, the role and significance of the capital's six main wholesale markets is largely unknown to most Londoners. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that they are open for business when the rest of the city is fast asleep.
This is why October has been declared London Markets' Month to help raise awareness of the wholesale markets and the vital role they play in the city's food chain. With a combined annual turnover of £2 billion and covering 135 acres of prime London real estate, the six major wholesale markets are:
New Covent Garden in... Vauxhall
The first thing that strikes you about New Covent Garden Market is the name: It's not where you think it might be.
The market used to be in Covent Garden, but by the 60s it was causing so much congestion in the heart of London that it had become a major problem. To solve this, the government formed the Market Authority and instructed it to find a new home and move the whole market.
Hence the name, and the ownership structure that persists to this day: The Covent Garden Market Authority is a statutory body that reports to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
"When we moved here 34 years ago, Vauxhall was considered the back of beyond. It was south of the river! Now, everyone realises that it is a fabulous location. It is 10 minutes from the City and 10 minutes from the west end. But we are still New Covent Garden Market," says Helen Evans, the Communications Manager of the Covent Garden Market Authority.
She says the name wasn't changed because it had already became famous all over the world: 'Covent Garden is synonymous with fruit and veg.'
The authority makes its money by charging rent and service charge on the 250-odd traders and companies on the site. By law, the authority must break even and receives no financial support from the government.
Whether you are in the flower market or the fruit and vegetable market, the vast array of produce available is quite mind-boggling. It is a feast of colours, shapes, sizes and smells. By comparison, the largest of high street supermarket stores is instantly reduced to that of a tiny corner shop. New Covent Garden Market covers 57 acres.
However, despite the scale of the place, it still very much retains the human touch. As you would expect of a small, isolated community that is running on its own time zone, there is a great camaraderie and spirit among the different traders. Furthermore, many of the traders are family-owned operations that have been at the Market through successive generations.
Gary Marshall is chairman of the Covent Garden Tenants' Association and has been a trader for nearly 30 years.
"Once you're in it, you never get out of it. It's that type of business. My dad was in it, my granddad was in it, and my son is 18 he's now in the business, which is great. Most of it is father to son, son down to grandson," says Gary.
"It's a great, vibrant business to be in. I'm pleased to say that there's been a resurgence in people looking for fresh produce and value produce which obviously directs itself to local, home grown and away from ready-made food."
"It is important in a small country like ours to work hard on protecting our local communities. One way is through the local trader, if you want meat buy it from the butcher; if you want bread buy it from the baker. Don't buy it from someone who is selling toilet rolls one week and the next week is on the meat counter selling lamp chops because he won't know anything about food."
The fruits of labour
Fruit trader Damian Michael Fowler has worked on the market since he left school at 16 and is the third generation in his family to do so. His working day runs from midnight to about 8am.
"We have anything from semi-exotics to mainline fruits like apples and pears."
"Our customers are mainly catering supply companies who then break the products down into smaller quantities for individual restaurants, hotels, schools and the prison service. There are also a number of restaurants who come here on their own because they want to look at their own produce."
Damian Michael Fowler
Do you get used to the hours?
"Yes and no. What messes it up is going on holiday. Because then you have to switch back to a normal routine. But it is part and parcel of what we do. We all know the rules and the hours are a little unsocial but there's good camaraderie and good banter. It's a good place to work. It's a good laugh."
Early birds getting the worm
Where there are traders selling in the middle of the night, there must also be some buyers.
Gary Cherrill is a contract florist who looks after five star hotels in the west end and also caters for large parties. On Mondays he will be at New Covent Garden's flower market from 2am buying stock. Tuesdays and Thursdays he gets a lie-in, not arriving until 4am.
The Flower Market
"This place is extremely important to my business," he says. "This is the only place I get my flowers from."
"The market traders are really helpful and they look after you. They try their best to order what you want. Without it, even though there are Dutch lorries coming over, I still feel we would need a market in London."
Gail Mejia of the upmarket bakers, Baker and Spice, also feels the market is vital to her business. Armed with a massive shopping list to stock her three outlets, the market allows her to taste and inspect the produce before buying from the 10 different traders that she regularly uses.
Says Gail: "This market is absolutely crucial to my business. I shop here every day. Without this place, my business wouldn't exist in its present form."
The New, New Market
Plans are now being drawn up for the next chapter in New Covent Garden's history.
New Covent Garden Market
"You can see that there has been no real capital investment in the site since it was built," says Helen Evans. "It's looking a bit tired, which is why we are now looking to re-develop the site to rejuvenate the market and build better, more modern facilities for the tenants working here."
The government has now given its consent to the redevelopment of the Market, which will not only improve the existing facilities but actually increase its working size. A private partner is currently being sought to help with the development.
Upon hearing the news, Gary Marshall, who had previously been critical of the government's lack of action on the issue, said:
"This is fantastic news for us all. A new Market has been promised for so long and to have this final approval from Government gives us great hope for the future of the Market and our businesses."
"The Tenants' Association has played a central role in getting the project to this stage and we will continue to play a key part in what happens next so that we all have a Market that we can be proud of."
last updated: 19/11/2008 at 15:22