|Borough Market bread.|
When writing about food I don’t tend to be overtly political, unless there is something directly important to say that’s relevant to the politics of food itself. Sometimes though, food, drink, and the enjoyment of these can be overtaken by events that are ‘political’ in the very broadest sense. Events that simply cannot be allowed to pass without comment.
On Saturday 3 June 2017, My partner JML and I spent a blissful few hours wandering around Borough Market. It’s a place we almost invariably make time for whenever we travel from Scotland to visit London. I even remember it from when I worked in the metropolis in the late 1980s, when it was still one of the capital’s main wholesale fruit and veg markets, but experiencing decline and under threat of closure and demolition. It remains important as a wholesale venue even now. Yet it has transformed itself so that many people – and especially those of us considered to be ‘foodies’ – would now certainly equate Borough Market as being one of the best places in the UK to sample an almost incomprehensibly wide range of fine food and ingredients drawn and inspired from across the globe.
That Saturday morning and afternoon, wandering Borough Market we encountered Spanish and Croatian delicatessen delights, charcuterie and cheese from France and Italy, casseroles from Ethiopia, Pakistani spiced lamb, and mezze from Turkey. There was the best range of dried Mexican chilies – all beautifully described – that you could hope to encounter, well, outside Mexico. There was coffee so good that people were prepared to queue for over 20 minutes, just for a flat white. And possibly somewhat unusually for London, whilst they were waiting folk were chatting; not just to those they knew, but to other random, fleeting acquaintances with a similar and shared passion for food and drink.
And that’s what food and drink does. It’s a universal leveller, a shared language. We all have to eat. The gastronomic dialect might vary a bit, but that is what makes it so joyous. As a child, I remember encountering the exoticism of lasagne for the first time, the acid unfamiliarity of limes, the alluring alieness of fresh chill. Effectively all new terms in my gastronomic vocabulary. And I now realise that what I was experiencing was a sort of culinary conversation, an exchange of food driven-passion and ideas. I think it’s something practically everyone experiences one way or another, and it’s a dialogue that reaches beyond single cultures and nations. Why else would we Brits be lovingly referred to as “Le Roast Beef” in France if it wasn’t for an understanding of, and passion for, food?
Borough Market has grown from its ancient, wholesale, origins to become something that superbly nourishes and facilitates this wider culinary conversation. It brings together Londoners of all types and backgrounds, draws in people from across the rest of the UK – frequently including we two lads from Scotland, and also attracts umpteenth visitors from across the world. At every stall, shop, bar and restaurant that now resides there, each enjoyed by a superbly diverse clientele, you can hear the flavoursome chatter, both actual and metaphoric, that constitutes this gastronomic conversation.
On Saturday 3 June, just a few hours after our visit, people with a dreadfully warped sense of humanity purposely chose to try and silence this culinary conversation, with horrific consequences. Understandably the stalls, shops, bars and restaurants of Borough Market have been forced to pause for breath. Rightly, there is a need to contemplate what has happened in this usually exuberant part of South London, and the reasons why anyone would seek to so brutally curtail, even to try to temporarily destroy, what folk across the planet have and do in common – they come together to bond over shared food and drink. Yet it is a pause.
For this joyous cacophony of gastronomic voices that are harmonised by Borough Market, and a multitude of similar venues globally, will never fall silent. The people who run and frequent the place have a common, passionate language when it comes to food. It is a universal tongue. Wandering around the railway arches of Southwark that Saturday, it could be heard everywhere, yet I didn’t need a translator to work out what was being said. I only needed to look at what everyone’s faces so clearly exhibited. The message they conveyed was clear:
‘Love food, feed love.’