Simply the best

London Essays – Issue 5: Food

Simply the best

London’s street markets are world-beating, a sign of just how vibrant London’s food scene is. But we need a big, central retail food market to rival those of other cities.

By Henry Dimbleby

Every Friday night, in a bleak, wind-blasted corner of Canada Water on the Rotherhithe peninsula, over 1,000 Londoners gather in an abandoned warehouse. They don’t come to pray, or dance, or get wasted: they come to eat. Hidden inside this unpromising-looking 30,000 sq. ft hangar, once a retail depot for a pound shop chain, is one of the best street food markets in the world.

Hawker House was created by my friend (and now business partner) Jonathan Downey. Born in Manchester, Downey is a legend in the world of bars and cocktails – one of only two Brits ever to win a lifetime achievement award at the Spirited Awards for bars held in New Orleans.

Four years ago, Downey started working with street food traders in London, using social media to organise pop-up events. The traders brought the food; he brought the booze and music. Gradually these events became more regular, evolving into semi-permanent evening markets, hidden in the derelict and disused corners of the city. Each one feels like a little town in its own right: a beautifully-lit street scene made up of independent traders, with great music, rooftop bars and a festival atmosphere.

But the most extraordinary thing about these markets – and the reason I wanted to get involved – is the quality of the food. These entrepreneurs aren’t just producing the usual street-food fare of burgers and pizza (although when they do, it’s the best you’ll find anywhere). At Hawker House alone you can travel the culinary globe in one E14 evening: Smokestak’s Brisket Roll – as good as any Texan barbecue; Gua Bao from Yum Bun – slow roasted belly pork with cucumbers, spring onion and hoisin in a pillowy steamed roll; Ahi Tuna Tacos from B.O.B’s Lobster; or a Breddos short rib taco plate – oak smoked short rib served on the bone with chipotle molasses, blue corn tortillas, pico de gallo and Xnipec salsas and coriander.

Last year I teamed up with Downey to form London Union, a new umbrella company – backed by fellow-believers including Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Yotam Ottolenghi – to help develop this extraordinary street food scene. We now have four markets in London, which are visited by up to 20,000 every weekend. They bring light to dark corners of the city, bolster communities, and help young food entrepreneurs start their businesses.

The only way was up

This would not have been possible without the extraordinary transformation in the London food scene over the last 15 years. Other cities have food markets and street food, but nothing like Hawker House. In fact, I would argue that these days, no other city rivals London’s food scene. This change has crept up on us so stealthily that most people, both inside the capital and out, don’t realise it yet – but when it comes to eating out, London is now the food capital of the world.

When I was growing up in the late 70s and 80s, Britain had a reputation as a culinary disaster zone, and rightly so. Britain’s food culture had been in decline for over 100 years. The roots of the problem can be traced at least as far back as the industrial revolution, which drew millions into rapidly expanding cities. The best British food had always been domestic – cooked in the home, mostly by women – and rural: the kind of simple, farmhouse cooking immortalised by Mrs Beeton, and later, Jane Grigson.

Mass migration into the cities meant that people (especially the poor) were cut off from the fresh produce of the countryside and culinary traditions that had been passed down through generations. The urban poor often survived on little but bread and tea, with predictable effects on their health. During the Boer War there was concern over the stunted height and physical weakness of Britain’s soldiers; free school meals were introduced (in 1879, in charitable schools in Manchester) partly in order to improve the calibre of the nation’s cannon fodder.

Two world wars didn’t improve matters. During and after the Second World War, especially, economy had to take precedence over taste. Government pamphlets instructed housewives in how to make salad dressing from flour, margarine, milk, water, mustard powder and vinegar, or fashion ‘chocolate spread’ from mashed potato, cocoa and sugar. It was a period of ingenious but, by all accounts, not especially joyful cookery.

In the years since, scarcity of food has become less of a problem than scarcity of skill. Modern farming methods, combined with industrialised food manufacturing, have ensured that most people in Britain have enough to eat even if they can’t cook. The stampede of women into the workplace has reduced the amount of primary cooking in the home.

Convenience foods must have felt like a space-age miracle to the superwomen of the 70s: just add water to feed your whole family! But the ready meal was perhaps the final blow to our crumbling culinary inheritance. Several generations have now been raised in households where no one has ever whisked an egg or peeled a potato, let alone boiled a carcass to make cheap stock.

There is one good thing about total failure: it leaves you with nowhere to go but up. Being famous around the world for our awful food has given the British – at least in this respect – a certain humility, and made us unusually open to new ideas.

While the wars had a profoundly negative impact on our food culture, they also marked the beginning of one of the major factors that has led to our culinary renaissance: the longest sustained period of immigration since the Vikings. The capital, especially, has been a magnet for generations of immigrants: Jews, Indians and Pakistanis, West Indians, Turkish, Vietnamese, and (more recently) antipodeans and Eastern Europeans, all bringing the skills and traditions of their different cultures. Immigrants tend to hang on to their culinary heritage with particular care, passing down traditional recipes between generations as a way of preserving a tangible, sensual link to their former homes. Looking for ways to make a living, many immigrants decided to capitalise on this knowledge by selling the British what we conspicuously lacked – good food.

With some honourable exceptions, British restaurants were dismal places before the immigrant revolution: stuffy, over-priced institutions serving starters of orange juice and congealed knock-offs of French food. It was Indian, Chinese, Turkish and Thai entrepreneurs who taught us that eating out could be informal, cheap and delicious.

At the same time, an increase in wealth and disposable income led to a new generation of homegrown restaurateurs. By the beginning of the 90s, a food revolution in London was beginning to build momentum. In recognition of this burgeoning scene, Time Out held its first Eating & Drinking awards in 1990. In the first three years of that decade, The Ivy, Quaglinos, Wagamama and The Eagle (the first gastropub) all opened. The restaurant trade was suddenly so buoyant that The Daily Telegraph asked me (then a young journalist) to travel from London to Paris and decide whose food was better. At that time, it has to be said, France won hands down.

But London’s transformation has continued to gather pace, while the French have rested on their laurels. I repeated that trip earlier this year and visited what were supposedly the best restaurants in Paris. Very few could hold a candle to the scene here.

We want the world’s greatest food market

The only sadness is that this extraordinary wealth of talent still goes largely unrecognised around the world. There was a map doing the rounds on Twitter the other day, showing how the Japanese see other countries. On France was written “No Fat People”, on Denmark “Everyone is Happy” and on Britain simply “Bad Food”. This – along with our stiff upper lip, concealing terrible teeth – remains probably our most famous national stereotype.

So what do we do about it? Well, first it would help if our own media would recognise the transformation. We are too slow to praise our homegrown talent. Downey and I recently visited Madrid after The Guardian published a gushing article about its amazing food markets. It was a depressing trip. None of the markets was as interesting and varied as, say, Maltby Street in Borough, Broadway Market in Hackney – or (dare I say it) as exciting as Hawker House. The most famous, the Mercado de San Miguel, though beautiful, was full of tapas bars serving meagre items on bread that was stale and curling at the edges. A bar grandly named El Mundo de Cerveza (world of beer) served only bottles of Sol and Desparados, a tequila-flavoured lager.

This is one reason why Downey and I want to build the world’s greatest food market in London – ideally in the long-abandoned Smithfield General Market, returning this iconic Victorian building to its intended purpose, filling its delicate vaulted ceilings once more with the noise, smells and excitement of a thriving market. Cities across the world have been waking up to the transformative power of food markets, which bring energy to dormant areas and create communities. Major new food markets have opened, or are about to open, in Rotterdam, Lisbon, Paris, and New York. We want our market in Smithfield not only to shift the centre of gravity of London, but to shout to the world about the extraordinary talent of our farmers, producers and chefs.

London’s journey into culinary greatness is almost complete. All that remains is to prove it to ourselves – and the world.