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What do British food markets say about us?

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Sheila Dillon Sheila Dillon | 13:14 UK time, Monday, 18 April 2011

It’s easy to dismiss Borough market as a fancy market in the capital for foodies and tourists that has no bearing on anyone’s life anywhere else. But there is so much more to it than that, which is why we chose to look at the rise of Borough in this week’s Food Programme. With its masses of visitors passing through each weekend, often just to gape at artfully presented ingredients rather than to spend any money, it could be said that Borough is on the way to being another Covent Garden - a food Disneyland.   

Furness Fish trading at Borough market

Furness Fish trading at Borough market

Borough was Britain’s attempt to create a market that would stand with the best of Europe - places like the Bocqueria in Barcelona or the Marche Bastille in Paris that seem to sum up the difference between continental and British food. In Britain we do supermarkets - the most powerful and profitable in the world.  Across the continent (as we’re always telling ourselves), they do it better: taking pleasure in their shopping as well as in their food, understanding that to have great food producers you need markets.

Not that Britain didn’t once have great markets: Leeds, Bradford, Bury, Bolton and Leicester (among others) still stand as grand examples of what was and what still might be if consumers could get away from the idea that markets need to be the place for the cheapest food.

In the late 90s, when Borough began its modern transformation into a food retailing phenomenon, traditional markets were has-beens and of no consequence to local or central government. Farmers’ markets were just coming to life - the first one in Bath was held in 1997, but to policy makers they were just niche add-ons for the middle classes. Town planners looked at the country’s old central market places and just saw lucrative development opportunities for supermarkets, offices, upmarket flats and chain shops. 

The rise of Borough Market changed all that. Though it all started by happenstance, modern Borough turned out to be the key to reviving Southwark, one of the poorest boroughs in the country. It did it by visibly linking together the fortunes of the hard-pressed rural economy and the rich capital.

In 1996 Randolph Hodgson, arguably the saviour of English farmhouse cheeses, moved his cheese maturing and storage business to a warehouse on the edge of the old market because it was damp, cold and cheap. The market was still functioning during the night for fruit and veg wholesalers, but during the day it was a litter-strewn car park. Few people could see its charm, but Randolph did and in 1998 he asked Henrietta Green if she’d be interested in holding one of her Food Lovers‘ Fairs there. She thought he was mad, but eventually agreed. Her Christmas market packed with producers from all over Britain attracted thousands of enthusiastic shoppers. Many producers had to drive back to their farms and dairies overnight to restock for the second day. 

And so it began....slowly. Dogged producers such as Peter Gott, a boar and rare breed pig farmer from Cumbria came regularly, each time bringing with him a different producer from the North West. Suddenly the lives of Cumbria’s hill farmers were transformed - they had a market. At first just once a month, then twice, but within three years it was three days a week, every week.

Jamie Oliver in Naked Chef

Jamie Oliver in his Naked Chef days: a fan of Borough market

As the market thrived, so did the area around it.  Local authorities all over the country sent teams to Borough to meet stallholders and management trying to understand how a food market could spur regeneration. Supermarket scouts were a common sight with their pads and pencils.  It was the Borough effect that resulted in so many big retailers now selling local food from named farmers. Glamorous chefs made Borough part of their routine. Jamie Oliver in his early guise as The Naked Chef was always buzzing off there for a load of this and that - and to this day still buys his meat (as carcasses) from Borough traders. It was sexy, of the moment, the new rock and roll. 

But success on that scale has brought problems. Borough is now one of London’s main tourist attractions and that’s driven out many of the shoppers who made the market a success. And because most of the excited hordes are now not carrying shopping bags, hot food to go is a much bigger part of the market than it used to be. Rents for the shops and the big permanent stalls have risen in recent years and all but one of the wholesale traders have moved out. Some of the original traders say their relationship with the market’s management has broken down and they no longer feel like Borough’s most important asset.

So, does the market still matter?  I believe that Borough could have a meaningful future if management really engages again with its farmer/producer traders, the people who are the soul of the market. If that happens - and management and trustees say that’s their goal - then we’ll still have a capital market to compete with what the French, Spanish and Italians take for granted: a market that sets standards and provides a vital link between town and country. 

So what do our markets tell us about food culture in the UK? Do we really prefer taking pictures of beautiful arrangements of food in the market, rather than cooking with these same raw ingredients? And do you think other markets in the UK are following the same pattern as Borough? Tell us about your local market.

Shelia Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.


  • Comment number 1.

    I've been a regular shopper at Islington farmer's market for some years now. About a year ago this market moved to Chapel Market, a famous traditional east end market site. This seemed to me a good idea as I felt it could regenerate this raggedy old street and perhaps help to integrate some of the different groups of people in this part of town. There were some initial reservations from some of the suppliers and some of the local traders but the farmer's market now seems to be thriving again, with local appreciation, and I hope that remains the case. As for Borough, it still has fantastic produce and if you time it right you can miss the hoards, but it does need go keep a check on rents and thereby final retail prices.

  • Comment number 2.

    I live in London and love the Borough Market, although it's not the cheapest place to buy food and its a bit of a trek from where I live. Our local market in Balham has pretty much died a death. I wish there was a quality market closer to me so I wouldn't have to use the supermarkets so much.

  • Comment number 3.

    In our village we have a true farmers' market - great produce from local producers and farms. Not the inevitable jars of chutney, but meat from the community farm, local organic veg and our very own cheesemakers. We even have a goat farm selling meat to order. But it's not just that, it has a sense of community, where most villagers pop along because they know they will bump into someone they know. It's cheery and fun, and people want to support local producers. And that's where Borough Market has begun to fall down - it doesn't feel like a market serving the community anymore, it's just somewhere to admire the food and stand in awe outside Neal's Yard Dairy. Not quite Disney, but not far off.

  • Comment number 4.

    The death of a market (in terms of viable outlets for small producers) is when it turns into a street-food location. Which isn't to say that these places shouldn't exist, but they should cease to be called a market.
    People are keen for wonderful ingredients, it's just going to take time for people to reconnect to food that isn't served in plastic trays or that might be more expensive than they are used to. But I think there are a lot of people who are already keen to shop at 'proper' markets, and the most successful ones will be those that attract a variety small producers, not just those that produce bespoke items. We need a replacement for supermarkets, ie, somewhere you can buy a full range of everyday products, not just markets that sell bespoke items only.

  • Comment number 5.

    I manage Hexham Farmers' Market in Northumberland on behalf of a not-for-profit limited company. Our town centre managers love having our twice monthly farmers' market in the centre of town as it brings the place alive, but there is no getting away from the fact that visitors alone can't sustain a market. We try very hard to maintain a broad range of products and producers and maintain standards, quality and local-ness (we are FARMA registered). However, the trading environment over the past couple of year has been really tough and although there are clearly some people who prefer the local and social market (and they are very much valued), it does sometimes feel that people say one thing, and then do something very different. We have virtually no street food and just one producer doing ready-made sauces and I do sometimes think that more ready-made foods might attract a new clientele.

  • Comment number 6.

    Peter Wilkinson said it himself, he is a businessman and coming at it from a totally different angle and not the place that the market's natural, historical and spiritual heart is. Those who relaunched and put Borough on the gastronomic map were advocates and promoters of good artisan food; provenance was the message. The presence of real farmers coming from all corners of the UK with their produce and stories was what the discerning shopper flocked there for. This spirit is now no longer at the heart of the market. It's get rich quick with too many hot food traders, the serious shoppers either long gone or frustrated. The departure of certain traders and leading lights has left a gaping hole in the cast of market characters. Other luminaries appear less and less. Stories of unreasonably high rents and heavy handed management abound. Am glad Shiela Dillon has raised this important subject. I hope the debate will question whether those in charge are going to continue the gastronomic renaissance, serve the community and whether they are the most trustworthy custodians of London's oldest market.

  • Comment number 7.

    The last time I went to Borough Market it looked like a ghost town - and the few traders there were complaining about rising costs and how they was driving away the people who should be there. I'm on their side (I'm a passionate supporter of independent producers and shops) but I was hoping for a fun day out, not a barrage of moans. The time before that, I felt it had lost its way and had priced itself out of my wallet. Perhaps it's because I'm spoilt for choice in Chiswick anyway but it's always nice to be exposed to different producers and new products and I'm a keen-to-buy buyer. I wonder if the landlord has become too greedy (as we see on our high streets, with the creep of the chains raising rents all round and so driving out the smaller independents) and forgotten that the main point is to appeal to customers who will come back again and again, not the temporary tourist trade?

  • Comment number 8.

    Borough Market stirring it up on my Twitter feed (@SheilaDillon): @katbrown82 says, My boyfriend call B M 'that middle-class theme park'. But @love_cakes takes a different view: ' it's still a great market, selling great produce from wonderful independent producers. I just wish it was closer to Derby'. @WBDinteriors says he'd always thought it would be 'difficult to shop at BM--so many film crews.' @the_a_stevenson tells me to get out a bit more and talk to the Gotts [that's Cumbrian pig farmer Peter and his son Martin the cheesemaker] and go to Cartmel market to get a proper perspective. @darraghooi is another who now finds it too difficult to shop at BM: 'more of a chore than a pastime. You can hardly move there.'
    So, what's the answer? Does Borough matter any more? Functions best as a tourist attraction? And if it's yes to tourism, what does that mean to the farmers for whom Borough has been a lifesaver?

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    A little late to the party but...We run farmers' markets in London, including Islington as mentioned by Matthew Driver above. We've always been firm believers in markets for local people, and although we do have a % of hot food, it's primary products and farmers who are our mainstay, and that's how we want to keep it. Tourists don't buy a kilo of potatoes, or a shoulder of mutton. We don't have the glamorous surroundings of Borough - we work from car parks, school playgrounds and the occasional street market if local authorities are kind enough to let us. Our markets do attract tourists and film crews, but not so many that they detract from the many regular & passionate local shoppers. Over the years we have received plenty of positive comments from surrounding shops who see their takings rise whilst the market is running, and obviously, a scattering of negative comments from shops who think that we take away trade. We're positive about the effect that markets have on the local economy. We need more markets in this country, for everyone, not just the middle classes. And, we accept healthy start vouchers at all our markets.
    As Jane Grigson said, 'we have more than enough masterpieces, what we need is a better standard of ordinariness'

  • Comment number 11.

    There's also been the news this week that Borough market has evicted eight long-term traders as they've been offering only hot food at Borough and selling their fresh produce at a new market at nearby Maltby street:

    What do you think?

  • Comment number 12.

    I would just like to clarify that out of the eight traders who have been evicted recently, very few were offering hot food at all. In fact it seems the main bulk were cheese stalls, selling the exact same produce at Borough as at their existing warehouses at Maltby St.


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