Last Updated on May 6, 2021
Epic Tales of Everyday Ingredients
Borough Market is one of the jewels in London’s crown – an outstanding food market where locals and visitors flock in droves to sample an international array of food and drink. Borough Market also runs a home delivery service, a vibrant programme of food talks and cookery demonstrations and it even has its own bi-monthly magazine, Market Life. Editor, Mark Riddaway, has written a captivating book, Borough Market Edible Histories (Hodder & Stoughton), which is the perfect antidote to the seemingly endless lockdowns during which many regulars cannot visit the market. While Borough Market continues to trade and provides deliveries, travel restrictions keep many of us away for now.
Edible Histories sets out to tell the history of everyday ingredients, 15 in all, which are as diverse as apples and eels via olive oil, tea, ice cream and herring. ‘Know where your food comes from,’ is the summation of the Borough Market project, writes Riddaway. In the UK we are increasingly separated from the source of our food, even more so during lockdown, I would suggest when many of us no longer even go to the supermarket. Borough Market affords shoppers the opportunity to chat to the producers about the provenance of their cheese, how they make their salumi, why they got into fermenting, the recipe for their granola. One can get up close and personal with the contents of the shopping basket.
This book is a tantalising meander for those who enjoy a dollop of history with their lunch plus a side of new vocab for some. I learned what a costermonger is, for example. Turns out to have been in use at markets well into the 20th century and refers to anyone selling fruit and veg, usually from a handcart (according to the dictionary I consulted). It derives from the costard apple, a variety of apple that was popular in medieval England. Grown in France, it was the second apple variety after the pearmain that was introduced here by the Normans. It became very popular and was even imported by the English royal household of Edward l in 1292. I appreciate that not all readers would find this fascinating, but if you do, then Edible Histories is one to order.
Young readers may find it difficult to conjure up a time when olive oil was not ubiquitous in the UK. Yet, until the 1990s, olive oil was still commonly bought in a pharmacy if needed. Influenced by travel abroad, the rise of anti-saturated fat advice and the popularity of TV chefs, the public taste for olive oil grew exponentially. Unfortunately, not all is as it seems and much of the olive oil we buy is industrially produced oils – even sold as extra-virgin – and is inauthentic, stripped of nutrients and taste through additions of chemicals and heat. We really do get what we pay for. The good stuff costs.
Often when ingredients are being sold on the cheap, this is because the producers are being exploited. Riddaway writes compellingly about the history of coffee which is indicative of this problem. The coffea arabica plant originated in Ethiopia and made its way across the Red Sea to Yemen where the practice of grinding and brewing the roasted beans developed. It was popularised by the local Sufi religious orders who are said to have used coffee to stay awake during long nights of ritual practice and they spread its use abroad. The British East India Company controlled the exports of coffee from the Yemeni port called Mocha. This became so profitable that it played a part in subsidising Britain’s colonial expansion.
In England, coffee drinking became hugely popular from the second half of the 17th century. Hundreds of years before our cities were overrun by Starbucks and Costa, London was packed with coffee shops. In May 1663 there were 82 coffeehouses within the Square Mile with dozens more around Covent Garden. These played an important part in the political and commercial developments of the time. One example of this, writes Riddaway, is that Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market) was born in Lloyd’s coffeehouse on Tower Street which was frequented by merchants and ship-owners. By the 18th century, facing competition from the Dutch who started growing coffee in their colony, Java, Britain found that the Chinese Tea market was more stable. This resulted in tea replacing coffee as the drink of choice in London for a further few centuries.
In the US, the burgeoning taste for coffee resulted in huge tracts of forests turned into coffee plantations, cultivated by slaves. Brazil’s reliance on slavery to maintain its place as the world’s largest coffee producer resulted in its abolition of slavery being delayed. Even today, argues Riddaway, the coffee trade remains highly exploitative with hedge funds and ‘tax averse’ coffee shop chains enriching themselves while those who cultivate the beans remain poor. Riddaway reminds readers to seek out beans with the shortest supply chain where producers have been fairly paid. There is a growing market for ethically grown coffee which should not, says Riddaway, leave a bitter taste. Look for Fair Trade coffee if you want an ethical and sustainable product where the farmers are paid fairly for their work.
Not every chapter In Edible Histories is as captivating as the story of coffee – vinegar, for example, striking me as rather a niche interest. While at times the writing felt a bit on the dry side, with too many historical facts and not enough spiciness for my taste, Edible Histories exposes the ugly underbelly of some of the foods we take for granted. Bananas, for example, have a history of appropriation, slavery, exploitation and corruption. These unsavoury truths rather taint the history of this delicious fruit. For consumers who wish to make ethical food choices, Fairtrade is an important consideration. Even today, there are ongoing court cases arising from growers becoming sterile due to pesticides used in banana plantations. That is in addition to the use of child labour, unions being suppressed, and poverty wages paid. When food is cheap – as is the ubiquitous banana – we need to consider how it gets onto our tables.
Borough Market Edible Histories provides much to chew on and encourages readers to really think about not only the history of the ingredients we eat and drink daily – tomatoes, alliums, fruit, tea and coffee – but also the ongoing socio-economic, political and human rights concerns we might take into account when deciding what we want to put on our plates.
You can buy Edible Histories from online booksellers including Amazon for around £13.20 for the hardback edition
To learn more about Borough Market itself, you could consider a walking tour around London Bridge and the Market. Check our review of Secret London Bridge